Flint Fishhooks and Ivory Soap (Part I)

As the century was drawing to a close, Lame Beaver had lived half of it and seen many things―and now he had been told that he would see a god.

—James A. Michener (1978)

1.0     Background

Although most citizens of Tennessee do not work as professional archaeologists or collect Native American artifacts as a hobby, it would be fair to say that a very large number of Tennesseans own a prehistoric lithic artifact that was found quite by accident, taken home, dropped into a drawer, and soon forgotten. Many of our citizens have an old King Edward, Swisher Sweets, or Roi-Tan cigar box full of assorted lithic artifacts that were found or otherwise accumulated during childhood. Some of these artifacts are referred to as arrowheads by the average citizen, but most of these items were too large to be used on the business ends of arrows. They were used as spear thrower (atlatl) dart points or knives, and professional archaeologists often refer to them as projectile points/knives or use the initialism pp/k when talking or writing about them.

Many of these fine citizens remember where they stashed their cigar box 35 years ago. If you bring up the subject of Native American artifacts in a living room conversation with one of these people, he will quickly run to his attic or garage, grab the box, and show off the artifacts inside it. He will proudly present his whole pp/k’s, broken pp/k’s, drill bits, and other assorted lithic tools―and then―just like with Lame Beaver―say that you will soon be seeing a small god. Then he will reach for the old, yellowed handkerchief in the corner of the cigar box, carefully unfold it, and say, “This’un here’s my pride and joy, the very best one in the whole box. It’s my rare flint fishhook.” If you look really amazed and interested, the owner may tell you who found it, how it was found, when it was found, and where it was found. Flint fishhooks are often accompanied by an elaborate and detailed background story.

2.0     Morphology of Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks come in various shapes and sizes, and they tend to be less than 7.62 cm in length (Figure 1). The most commonly seen ones are similar in shape and style to the dark-colored one in the bottom row (middle) of Figure 1. This is the typical J-shaped flint fishhook. The J-shaped flint fishhooks sometimes have an expanded, T-Shaped top for securely tying on a fishing line. Others have only a slightly expanded top for this purpose.  Still others have one or two top notches to hold the fishing line.  The bodies (sometimes called “shafts”) of J-shaped flint fishhooks are much wider than the bodies of our modern metal fishhooks, which leave the factory in a J shape. The pointed end of the flint fishhook is designed to sink deeply into the oral flesh of the fish, allowing a fisherman to snag and haul in his catch.

Although not shown in Figure 1, some of the small, J-shaped flint fishhooks have narrow, thin, fragile-looking bodies with an exterior spike that protrudes downward from the bottom curve of the J.  This spike is sometimes straight, or it can be curved forwards or backwards. This extra spike was presumably added to better hold a fish on the hook, but its position often looks as if it would pose a hindrance to any fish that might want to bite on the hook.   Occasionally, a person will encounter a U-shaped flint fishhook, either with or without canine-tooth barbs.

Flint Fish Hooks II

Figure 1.     An Assortment of Flint Fishhooks

3.0     Lithic Raw Materials Used to Make Flint Fishhooks

Flint fishhooks are usually made from high-quality, easily worked flint (hence their name), which is more commonly referred to by petrologists and archaeologists as chert, a cryptocrystalline silicate stone that occurs naturally in Tennessee and many other states. This is the brittle, waxy rock from which most prehistoric lithic artifacts are made. Chert shatters easily during knapping and exhibits conchoidal (bulb-shaped) flaking scars as a result of the knapping process. Flint fishhooks are made from many different types and colors of chert raw materials.

More properly, flint fishhooks should be termed chert fishhooks, but we have retained use of the term flint fishhook throughout this series of five blog posts because it is the term used most in American history and the term that is still used in casual conversation among ordinary citizens.

4.0     Distribution of Flint Fishhooks in the United States

Flint fishhooks are commonly found in private Native American artifact collections across Tennessee and the nation, and some museums have them in their collections and on display to the public. One such museum that has 12 of them on display is the state-supported Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex, which is located in Norris State Park near Norris, Tennessee. They have the common J-shaped flint fishhooks and the fragile J-shaped fishhooks with barbs that protrude from the bottom of the curve in the J.  Flint fishhooks are almost never encountered in the Native American artifact collections obtained from professional archaeological excavations and curated by American universities, federal museums, and federal/state archaeological research facilities. Another place where flint fishhooks are almost never seen is in the collection of an avocational archaeologist or a well-educated Native American artifact collector.

5.0     Folklore and Dogma about Flint Fishhooks

Considerable folklore surrounds the flint fishhook, and as is the case with all true folklore, it is usually passed from one person to another orally rather than in writing. It arises in conversations among professional archaeologists and among average citizens who are interested in Native American artifacts. Some of this folklore has become dogmatic in nature. For example, one often hears that no flint fishhook has ever been found by a professional archaeologist on the ground surface or in an excavation square on a Native American archaeological site. Most avocational archaeologists and knowledgeable Native American artifact collectors will tell you the same thing. This is usually followed by the casual statement that “all flint fishhooks are fake artifacts.” If a person states otherwise in a conversation, it immediately raises eyebrows, and another conversant is quick to step in and correct their obvious error. Turner, Hester, and McReynolds (2011:38) have issued the strongest dogmatic statement on this subject in the recent professional archaeological literature:

One of the most common fakes is the chert fishhook…and all experts agree―there is not, and never has been, a single authentic specimen of this form. Bone and shell hooks dominated the fishing technology of American Indians.

Another aspect of this dogma is the strong belief that a flint fishhook is not thin enough and sharp enough to puncture the oral tissue of a freshwater or marine fish. This dogma goes on to say that flint fishhooks are too fragile and brittle to withstand the intense struggle of a frightened fish that has latched onto one. In support of these strong personal convictions, people point out the fact that ancient Native Americans had several more effective and efficient means of catching fish, including flexible fishhooks made from animal bone, shell fishhooks, weighted fish nets, fishing spears of various types, portable fish traps, and weir traps constructed in stream beds.

Parts II through V of this series will address: (1) the history of flint fishhooks in the United States and Western Europe; (2) the issue of whether any credible archaeological evidence for ancient Native American flint fishhooks exists; (3) the practicality of actually catching a fish with a flint fishhook; and (4) some derived conclusions about the folklore and dogma associated with flint fishhooks in the United States.

Update on March 31, 2016:  As noted earlier in this article, this is the first blog post in a series of five that I plan to write on flint fishhooks.  Part II is a history of flint fishhooks in Western Europe and the United States.  This second post is about 93 percent complete in Microsoft Word 2010.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that it runs about 25 pages long single-spaced. However, one saving grace is how fascinating and humorous this history turned out to be.  You will love it. Unfortunately, my time has been taken up by many other things lately, and I am unsure as to when I will be able to complete this series of posts. To the best of my knowledge, no one else in American archaeology has ever taken such a close look at the subject of flint fishhooks. I have learned a lot about flint fishhooks while gathering information for the remaining posts.  Just briefly, I will share some of that with you here, and I will write more about it in depth when I can return to this subject later in time.

Part II – History of Flint Fishhooks.  With the possible exception of some composite bone and chert fishhooks found in Germany in the 19th century, the 186-year history of flint fishhooks in Western Europe and the United States is almost entirely one of artifact fakery and fraud. Most of this fakery and fraud was committed by a large number of ordinary people doing flint knapping in the privacy of their homes. However, it also involved a much smaller list of not-so-ordinary, but quite colorful and productive, characters who might easily inhabit the seedier streets of London in a Charles Dickens novel.  What a bunch!!!  You’ll love hearing their stories.  I would also add that a great deal of the current sales and trade in flint fishhooks among artifact collectors and ordinary citizens is neither fakery nor fraud. It is just a matter of uninformed artifact collectors (or their surviving relatives) who own flint fishhooks they mistakenly believe are authentic prehistoric artifacts—and they trade or sell them to ordinary people who equally buy into the expansive fantasy of authentic prehistoric flint fishhooks.

Part III – One Possible Authentic Flint Fishhook.  Has any credible person in the United States ever found an authentic prehistoric flint fishhook in archaeological context on a known archaeological site?   Turner, Hester, and McReynolds (2011:38) were convinced that no such artifact had ever been found, but they might have missed this obscure story out of Iowa.

The professional archaeology community in Iowa, including the current State Archaeologist (Dr. John F. Doershuk), with whom I was directly in touch, insists that at least one such find has indeed occurred in the history of American archaeology.  That was a surface find in June 1944 (Figure 2).  It was found on the ground surface in fill that had been eroding out of a mound in the Fish School Mound Group in Allamakee County, Iowa. This artifact was found near this mound by Dale Henning, a boy about 12 years of age, who was hiking near the mound site with his adult friends Ellison Orr (one of the two founding fathers of professional archaeology in Iowa); Dr. H.P. “Doc” Field (an Iowa dentist); and Mr. Cliff Chase (Decorah Telephone Company).  Six years later in 1950, the young man who found the flint fishhook wrote an article on his find, which was published in the state-level archaeological journal The Minnesota Archaeologist (Henning 1950).

This young man later became Dr. Dale Henning (Ph.D. in anthropology), a highly respected professional archaeologist who was a co-author with Dr. James B. Griffin on at least one major archaeological report. Dr. Henning was a long-time Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nebraska and later at a private college in Iowa. Dr. Henning is still alive today, now in his mid-80s, and he is widely considered to be the living dean of professional archaeology in Iowa, meaning the Iowa living equivalent of our own Dr. Charles H. Faulkner and Dr. Charles H. McNutt here in Tennessee. Despite his old age, Dr. Henning is still sharp as a hypodermic needle mentally, highly articulate, and very detailed in his writing. In 2015, Dr. Henning was gracious enough to grant me an interview by e-mail concerning the details of his flint fishhook discovery. He insists that the flint fishhook he found was an authentic field find of a prehistoric artifact in secure archaeological context. When I can get around to writing about this artifact and its discovery in depth, I will include all of the new background information that Dr. Henning and Dr. Doershuk so kindly provided to me. This includes the story about the unfortunate fate that befell this artifact while it was being curated in the Iowa state collections several decades ago—in itself a very interesting and precautionary tale about acting rashly on untested blanket assumptions in American archaeology.

Fish Mound Group

Figure 2.  Flint Fishhook from Fish School Mound Group

Part IV- Do Flint Fishhooks Really Work?  Much to my surprise, I ran into a really nice man named Terry DeWitt.  He lives in Texas.  Mr. DeWitt is a hobby flint knapper and an avid recreational fisherman. Just like  me and many of you, he had long heard the famous (but long untested) American archaeological declaration that flint fishhooks would be too big for a fish to bite on and too brittle to haul one in on without breaking. Just out of curiosity one day, Mr. DeWitt decided to knapp some typical flint fishhooks and put the famous declaration to the test out on the waters in Texas. In American archaeology, we call this experimental archaeology. As it turned out, according to him, he actually caught fish (10 lbs or less) with his flint fishhooks—repeatedly. He and I have plans to get together, as best we can one day; do some actual fishing experiments; document them on video and by photography; do some stationary, weight-load, stress-test experiments on flint fishhooks; and jointly publish the results for the American archaeological community—just to put this whole dogmatic matter to rest once and for all.

Part V – Summary and Conclusions. We get lots of visitors and views here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog.  I have been more than a little concerned and disturbed about all of the people who have shown up at the blog to read the Part I story (above) on flint fishhooks.  To tell you the truth, it kind of grieves me because I just know many of these people are ordinary citizens who own flint fishhooks, and they are salivating in hopes that this series of blog posts will somehow confirm the authenticity of their highly prized flint fishhooks as “truly rare and really-for-real artifacts made by really-for-real prehistoric American Indians.”

Well, the makers of Ivory Soap had a famous advertising slogan about their product: “It’s 99 and 44/100 percent pure.”  After looking very closely and seriously at the history of flint fishhooks, I have concluded to my own satisfaction that 99 and 44/100 percent of all flint fishhooks in the United States today are fake artifacts that were made by European or North American flint knappers of Caucasian descent sometime within the last 186 years.

Most of the flint fishhooks in current artifact collections (private, public, and some small museums) were likely faked and fraudulently sold to unwary members of the public sometime after circa 1920. With regard to the remaining 56/100 of one percent, I cautiously leave that microscopic window open just on the possibility that the flint fishhook found near the Fish School Mound Group in Iowa was indeed authentic as Iowa professional archaeologists insist to this very day. In addition, just as an extra precaution, I would also add that any such microscopic number of flint fishhooks that might be authentic prehistoric artifacts may not have been used for fishing at all. They could have been worn as pendants, or they could have served some other purpose that is unknown to professional archaeologists today.

This is where the great ordinary citizen question arises with the great Middle Tennessee colloquial lead words:

Do you mean to tell me that each one of those rare American Indian flint fishhooks in that frame on my den wall is a fake?

Answer: Flint fishhooks are not rare at all—because huge numbers of them were faked over the past 186 years. Huge numbers of them have been traded and sold among ordinary citizens for many decades. It is not at all unusual to encounter a flint fishhook that is accompanied by an elaborate but phony provenience story detailing when it was found, where it was found, who found it, etc.  All of these false stories were originated specifically to facilitate sales and trades of fake flint fishhooks.  The flint fishhooks mounted in that frame hanging on your den wall or lying in that cigar box in your attic are almost certainly fake artifacts.

Then comes the inevitable second question—desperately searching for even the tiniest ray of hope:

Well, if that there flint fishhook in Iowa was an authentic prehistoric artifact, maybe one of mine is too.  What do you think about that?

 Answer:  Honestly.  If your flint fishhook were a real human being, do you seriously think that out of 326,000,000 Americans, your flint fishhook is going to be the one to win the $700,000,000 Powerball Jackpot?  Give me a break!!!  You know what Harry Truman used to say: “Sometimes I just tell people the truth, and to them, it sounds like Hell.”  If you own any flint fishhooks, they are almost certainly fake artifacts. If someone—anyone—out there is offering to sell you flint fishhooks, your money would be better spent on chicken poop. You can at least fertilize your flower beds with it.

Then again, if you are an ordinary American citizen, you just found out that you bought a fake flint fishhook, and you are royally pissed about it after reading this blog article, you might want to give the following some thought:

“H-a double r-i…..g-a-n spells Harrigan.  That’s me!!!”  But seriously: “F-r single au………d A-g-a-i-n spells Fraud Again. That’s not me!!!”  What is the point here? Well, there are two types of people who sell other people fake flint fishhooks:

(1)  One type is a person who owns and sells flint fishhooks, but they are totally ignorant of the fact that almost all flint fishhooks are fake artifacts. For example, such a person may be the legal heir of a recently deceased artifact collector. They just inherited his artifact collection, and flint fishhooks are in his collection. This heir knows absolutely nothing about prehistoric Native American artifacts and really does think the flint fishhooks in the collection are authentic Native American artifacts. If you bought fake flint fishhooks from a person like this or a person in some other similar situation, then both of you just made an honest mistake. No one was intentionally cheated. The best you can do is to explain to this nice person that nearly all flint fishhooks are fake artifacts and kindly ask for a refund.

(2) The second type is a person who already knows their flint fishhooks are fake artifacts—but they go ahead and sell them to you anyway. You have two subtypes of people here:

Subtype 2A. This person knows their flint fishhooks are fake artifacts, and they knowingly sell them as authentic prehistoric Native American artifacts for just a couple of dollars each through flea markets, magazine ads, comic book ads, newspaper ads, on-line ads, or through on-line auction houses. The ads are often aimed at kids who are just getting interested in archaeology for the first time in their lives.  You know: “Daddy!!! Daddy!!!  Look here at this neat ad in my comic book!!!  I love archaeology.  Buy that flint fishhook for me, daddy. Please???!!!”

Subtype 2B. This person knows their flint fishhooks are fake artifacts, and they knowingly sell them to ordinary citizens as authentic prehistoric Native American artifacts. They might charge at least $50 to $100 (or far more money) for each flint fishhook. The sale is often accompanied by a made-up, bullshit story that goes something like this:

“Ain’t she a beaut!!! Now this here extremely rare and highly authentic Native American flint fishhook was found in a plowed field by Bosephus Gordon in Hickman County, Tennessee. He found it on the Homer Davis Farm site, a real archaeological site that has been recorded in the Tennessee Site Survey files. It was found late on a Saturday afternoon in March 1978, and it remained in his personal collection until he died last year. Mary Fescue, a close friend of mine, bought it from his 96-year-old mother who was still alive when Bosephus died—and I bought it from Mary for $500 about four weeks ago. I will sell it to you for a small markup—say— $700.”

In both cases a crime is being committed. This crime is called fraud.

The Subtype 2A person is dealing in petty fraud that involves only a very few dollars per person, and your chances of sending him or her to jail or getting your money back are next to zero—meaning going after the person legally would cost you far more effort and money than the $2.00 you spent on their fake flint fishhook. Basically, you are just out of luck here.

The Subtype 2B person just did a classic, major league con job on you. This is fraud—plain and simple—and you just lost big money on it. If it was a local sale in your state, it is a police or county sheriff matter that you might want to pursue to put the seller in jail and try to get your money back. If the sale occurred across state lines and you lost big money, it may be a matter worth referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). If the seller fleeced you, he or she is most likely fleecing many other people with recently made fake flint fishhooks and other fake artifacts at high prices—and someone needs to put this predator out of business and send him or her to prison. Do not try to confront this person yourself because they may be armed and dangerous. Always refer the matter to the proper local, state, or federal authorities.

Normally, a professional archaeologist like me refrains from discussing the “ins” and “outs” of artifact sales and trading. I made an exception above because many of the people who buy flint fishhooks are not artifact collectors. They are just ordinary citizens—like your Boy Scout son. I just wanted to alert you to these long-time, nationwide flint fishhooks scams so you can avoid getting ripped off.

I had one other key concern in discussing the sale of fake artifacts like flint fishhooks. While researching my unpublished paper on flint fishhooks, I was in contact with a Ph.D. archaeologist in a state other than Tennessee. His specialty is prehistoric lithic technology and lithic analysis. He wanted to alert me to a concern that worries him greatly. Some of the people who produce fake lithic artifacts have become so excellent at their fakery that even professional archaeologists with laboratory equipment cannot tell the difference between an authentic prehistoric lithic artifact and a fake one. He thinks close to one million (or more) fake lithic artifacts are produced each year in the United States, and they are flooding into private artifact collections and the homes of ordinary citizens by virtue of being traded or sold.

Professional archaeologists often find it necessary to use artifact collectors or ordinary citizens as informants to learn more about important archaeological sites that these people already know far more about than we do. They often own artifacts that reportedly came from these sites—but they were bought or traded into the person’s hands rather than found personally on that site by the owner. So, when a citizen or artifact collector shows one of these artifacts (purportedly from a given site) to a professional archaeologist, the archaeologist now has no way of telling whether the artifact actually came from that site or whether it is a fake artifact that never set “foot” on that site. My colleague firmly believes—and I fully agree with him—that the manufacture and sale of fake and fraudulent lithic artifacts is not just a concern for private artifact collectors and museums. It has now become a clear and present danger to professional archaeological research and the accuracy of the information presented in archaeological reports.

6.0     References

Henning, Dale 1950. Two Unusual Finds from Allamakee County, Iowa. The Minnesota Archaeologist. January.

Michener, James A. 1978. Teleplay for the television miniseries Centennial (Episode 1). Based on the 1976 historical novel Centennial and later syndicated in DVD format by Universal Studios.

Turner, Ellen Sue, Thomas R. Hester, and Richard L. McReynolds 2011. Stone Artifacts of Texas Indians. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing.

Photograph Credit (Figure 1) – Mootsman. Arrowheadology.com (Forum: Arrowheads and Indian Artifacts, Thread: For the Non-Believers….Flint Fish Hook), September 9, 2013.

Photograph Credit (Figure 2) – Dale Henning, The Minnesota Archaeologist, 1950.


2 thoughts on “Flint Fishhooks and Ivory Soap (Part I)

  1. schafersman

    What a wonderful topic! I’ve always wondered what these things really are. After reading the posts and literature online that I was able to discover using Google, it appears that some of the flint “fish hooks” are genuine artifacts but can’t be actual fish hooks because flint is not strong enough under tension to catch a fish. Genuine ancient fish hooks were made of bone or antler, a much stronger and flexible material. The authentic hook-shaped artifacts are usually said to be body jewelry, pendants, gut hooks, hide skinners, etc., but who really knows? Even more interesting is the fact that many of the flint “fish hooks” are fakes fabricated by hoaxers who merrily toss them into archaeological sites. Just visit ebay.com and search for “flint fish hooks” to see some of these for sale. And they’re not very expensive! I can’t wait to read what our intrepid archaeology blogger Tracy thinks about these things.

  2. Pingback: Flint Fishhooks: A Belated Update | Archaeology in Tennessee

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